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Bible Commentaries

Mahan's Commentary on Selected Books of the New Testament

James 2

Verses 1-9

Fulfilling the royal law

James 2:1-59.2.9

James 2:1. In the first verses of this chapter, James rebukes a respect of persons on account of outward circumstances and material advantage! In the body of Christ, there are no rich and poor, important and unimportant, great and small, black and white, but Christ is all (Colossians 3:10-51.3.11; 1 Corinthians 12:12-46.12.13). We are to show no partiality, favoritism or preference because of material or physical differences between believers!

Brethren, children of the same Father and family ought never to have, hold and profess the faith of Christ in such a manner as to cater to the rich and powerful and show contempt for the poor and weak!

James 2:2-59.2.4. An illustration. Suppose two men come into our assembly. One, judging by his gold rings and fine clothes, is a very wealthy and influential man. The other, judging by his shabby clothes, is a very poor and ignorant man. If we are impressed and awed by the presence of the wealthy man and say to him, ‘Here is a choice seat. We are glad to have you. Welcome to our assembly,’ and with some contempt and indignation, say to the poor, ‘Sit in the back, or on the floor,’ we are discriminating, judging and making a distinction between them not based on faith, godliness or a spiritual relationship with Christ, but on material advantage! Our motive is wrong. Our thoughts are evil. We do not demonstrate the love of Christ (Acts 10:34-44.10.35; Psalms 40:4).

The people of God are not to enlist the aid of the world’s famous, wealthy and important to further the cause of Christ. In the church fellowship we are to despise any inclination within us to honour and cater for the flesh! (Psalms 118:6-19.118.9.) We are to cultivate a spirit of love and oneness which highly regards all believers, rich or poor, for Christ’s sake! (1 Timothy 5:21.)

James 2:5. ‘Listen to this, my beloved brethren. Hath not our Lord chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world?’ They are not poor at all, for they are rich in faith and grace. Has not God chosen those who have nothing in this world and are looked upon as being nothing? In reality they are somebody, for they are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ in the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:26-46.1.29). The Lord’s choice of his people is not based upon the merit, intelligence, morals or wealth of men, but is according to his mercy and grace.

James 2:6-59.2.7. When we show respect to men because of material or physical difference, when we distinguish between men on this basis, we not only humiliate, dishonour and show contempt for the poor, but also for our Lord! We are as much as saying that he did a wrong thing in choosing his elect without regard to natural advantage. Is it not the worldly rich and powerful who are usually idled with pride and arrogance and who really hold us in contempt? Is it not usually the rich and powerful who oppress the church and hate the gospel of free grace for sinners? Is it not usually the rich and famous who blaspheme the name of the Lord Jesus and worship not before his throne? It is true that our Lord has called and conquered some of the world’s mighty and noble, but not many! Material wealth, fame and popularity generally beget more pride, self-righteousness and contempt for grace!

James 2:8. On the other hand, ‘if you really fulfill the royal law’ (so called because it is the law of the King of kings) ‘you do well!’ This royal law says, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ (Matthew 22:34-40.22.40; Galatians 5:13-48.5.14; Galatians 6:2). Every person is my neighbour and is to be an object of my love and compassion, especially those of the household of faith (Galatians 6:10).

James 2:9. If we show partiality, favoritism and honour to one person above another because of position, power or wealth, we commit sin, and we are rebuked and convicted by the law of our Lord as transgressors. If motive in such behaviour is considered, the sin is evident: for we are doubting the care of our Lord and looking to the arm of fleshly influence and help. If understanding in such behaviour is considered, the sin is evident: for our judgment of the persons’ relationship with God is formed not by heart and life, but by appearance and possessions (Luke 16:15; Luke 12:15). Many who flee some of the outward, more obvious forms of sin may find themselves great transgressors and stoners in regard to attitude, spirit, and absence of genuine love!

Good works the evidence of faith

James 2:10-59.2.18

James 2:10. A man is not at liberty to obey and neglect what commandments of Christ he pleases, but should have respect to them all. Men of pharisaical disposition may fancy (because they are outwardly moral) that they have kept the law of God (like the rich young ruler or Saul of Tarsus), but this is a sad mistake. To offend in one point (even what we may regard as a small point) is to be treated by the law as a transgressor (Romans 2:28-45.2.29).

James 2:11. The same Lawgiver (the living God) who gave the seventh commandment delivered the sixth commandment. The point James makes is that the law of God is one (a single law), though it consists of different precepts. To violate one precept of the law makes us violators of the whole law.

James 2:12. ‘So speak and so do.’ Both words and actions should be weighed! Believers are to give attention to what they think, say and do, for the believer is judged by, and responsible to the law of Christ, especially about love (John 13:34-43.13.35). Christ is our law, and our profession is weighed by the same.

James 2:13 . The man ‘who has shown no mercy’ to the poor and distressed members of Christ, but has for gain shown respect to the powerful, ‘will receive judgment before God without mercy’ (Matthew 25:41-40.25.45; Mark 11:25-41.11.26). Merciful men, who have shown mercy in the name of Christ and for the glory of Christ, are not afraid of judgment, but rather rejoice in view of it, knowing that in Christ there is no judgment. They know what manner of men they are by God’s grace.

James 2:14. What is the use for any person to say that he has faith in Christ if he has no good works (no labour of love) to show for it? Can this kind of faith save? Certainly not! True faith is not historical faith, nor faith that lies only in words. True faith that saves is an operative grace that works by love and kindness both to Christ and others (2 Corinthians 5:17; 1 John 2:4).

James 2:15 , I6. ‘Suppose a brother or sister is without proper clothing and has nothing to eat, and you say to him, ‘Goodbye! Keep yourself warm and well-fed,’ yet you do not give him any clothes or food. What good have you done him? Will your words warm him? Will your words feed him?’ Of course not! A man is foolish to think that words alone can profit a man in these circumstances. In the same way, foolish is the man who thinks that his words of religion will take the place of works of faith!

James 2:17. Faith that has no works is a dead, useless, false faith! Works without faith are dead works. Faith without works is dead faith! Good works are second acts, necessarily flowing from the life of faith. By these works there is clear evidence that faith is living and active! Those who perform them in the name of Christ are true and living believers. Works are not infallible proof of genuine faith, but the absence of works is certain proof of the absence of faith!

James 2:18. A true believer in Christ may very justly call upon a person who professes religion but who has no works of faith (no labour of love, no life of dedication) to prove what he professes. ‘You say that you have faith. I am saying nothing about having faith, but it is evident to you, and to all, that I do have works (1 believe Christ, I worship him, I support his gospel, I help his people, I show mercy to the needy and compassion to the weak). Now, you prove to me that you believe and love Christ; give me some evidence that you are a child of God.’ Faith is an inward principle in the heart, a hidden thing which can only be known and seen by external works and results. The faith of Christ, which is real, needs not words of confirmation, but is confirmed and evidenced by good work.

Faith without works is dead

James 2:19-59.2.26

These verses are a continuation of the warning given by the man who has a faith that produces good works, godliness and obedience, to the man who boasts of a faith without works. He is declaring that while works are not an infallible proof of faith, the absence of works is certain proof of the absence of faith!

James 2:19. Faith without works is no more than the faith of devils who are damned. ‘You believe that there is one God; you do well,’ for there is but one God, proved by the light of nature, the works of creation, providence and the Scriptures. But the devils also have this same historical faith and knowledge. They know and believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Messiah! (Luke 4:34; Acts 16:17; Acts 19:15.) These devils tremble at the wrath of God and the thought of future torment (Mark 5:7; Matthew 8:28-40.8.29).

James 2:20. ‘O vain, foolish man, do you want proof or evidence that faith without deeds is useless and as dead as a body without life? I will give you proof that good works necessarily flow from true faith as breath, movement and warmth flow from a natural body that lives.’

James 2:21. An example is Abraham. ‘Was not Abraham justified by works?’ One must remember the subject! We are not discussing the justification of Abraham’s soul before God (Romans 4:2-45.4.5; Romans 3:28; Galatians 2:16; Galatians 3:11), but the truth of his faith and the reality of his justification. The faith that Abraham claimed was demonstrated and confirmed by his willingness to offer his son upon the altar. One cannot separate true faith and obedience. If Abraham had refused to leave his country or refused to offer his son, it would have been proof that he did not really believe God, though he may have claimed with his words that he did! His faith was attended by good works and evidenced by them!

James 2:22. ‘Do yon see how that Abraham’s faith and his actions were working together?’ When God gave a command, Abraham readily obeyed because he believed God. His works and obedience declared his faith to be sincere, true and genuine! His faith in God led him to obey, even though he knew not why, how, or where. There is no ‘perfect’ faith! A better word may be ‘complete,’ or ‘genuine.’ By his works his claim of faith is justified!

James 2:23. Genesis 15:6; Genesis 15:6 speaks of Abraham’s faith and the imputation of it to him for righteousness long before Isaac was born. The sacrifice of Isaac was a fulfillment of this scripture. His obedience is a clear proof of the truth of his faith and gives reason to believe that he was a justified person, loved and favored by God. Abraham also loved God and showed himself friendly to him, trusting in him and yielded to his will (Isaiah 41:8).

James 2:24. It may appear that James is contradicting Paul’s statement in Romans 3:28. This is not true! Paul speaks of the justification of the soul before God. James speaks of the justification of our faith before men (James 2:18). Paul speaks of our works as a cause, saying that good works cannot be the cause of justification. James speaks of good works as an effect, flowing from faith and showing the sincerity of faith. Paul warns the legalists and self-righteous who sought acceptance by works. James warns the libertines and worldly who sought acceptance by an empty profession of faith that had no regard for holiness and good works!

James 2:25. Rahab is another example. She believed God, and her faith was shown to be true and genuine by her works. Wherever there is faith, in Jew or Gentile, male or female, greater or lesser believers, there will be good works to follow. Therefore that person is a vain and foolish person who lays claim to faith, boasts of favour with God and looks upon godliness and good works as unnecessary!

James 2:26. As a body when the spirit, breath and life are gone out of it is dead and useless, so faith without works is a vain, useless, unprofitable thing that can neither justify, save, nor give any reason or comfort that a man will be saved!

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Bibliographical Information
Mahan, Henry. "Commentary on James 2". Mahan's Commentary on Selected Books of the New Testament. 2013.